In August of 2019, I had the pleasure of facilitating an active learning keynote for the SENCER Summer Institute hosted at Case Western University. It was a wonderful opportunity to work and learn with hundreds of faculty from Duke University to Santa Clara University and myriad colleges and universities in-between.
Immediately after one of the workshops I facilitated, Dr. Madhavan Narayanan, an Assistant Professor of Natural Science at Mercy College, came up to me to thank me for the learning opportunity. Professor Narayanan also mentioned that he believed that his colleagues at Mercy College might benefit from learning the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) and implementing the strategy into their teaching. By the end of August, after a few conversations with Dr. Reema Zeineldin, Mercy College’s Associate Provost for Faculty Affairs, I was slated to facilitate a keynote and workshops on the QFT for Mercy College faculty as a part of their fall faculty seminar day. I not only had the opportunity to work with over 175 thoughtful educators from across all departments, I learned about the different, innovative ways Mercy College faculty create the space for their diverse students to become even more curious, engaged learners. I received a thoughtful note soon after the keynote on how many faculty felt it was the, “best professional development they had ever experienced.”
Just as he moved quickly to introduce me to colleagues at Mercy College, Professor Narayanan used the lesson plan he developed during the seminar to facilitate the QFT in his general chemistry course the very next day. During the first half of class, students took their first exam of the semester and had a brief break. Professor Narayanan knew he wanted to dive into the next chapter on electron configuration with the remaining 90 minutes, but was also cognizant that his students may be tired and lacking the attention needed to listen to him lecture.
After a 5-minute introduction on how the previous chapters on atomic structure relate to the upcoming chapter on electron configurations, Professor Narayanan requested that students form into groups of 2 to 4 people. Each group assigned a scribe, then the class dove into the QFT with the picture of the flame test (below) serving as the Question Focus (QFocus).
For five minutes, students asked as many questions as they could and followed the rules for producing questions. Then, for another two-minutes students identified open-ended and closed-ended questions. After groups changed one question from closed-ended to open-ended and changed one question from open-ended to closed-ended, each group prioritized their three most important questions. The process concluded with a group reflection.
Group 1’s Questions
1. Why are the flames different colors?
2. Are they different colors because they are different elements?
3. Why do the flames have different lengths?
4. Does the change of the element effect the flame?
5. Are they ions?
6. Would a nonmetal react the same way since they are all metals?
7. How does the level of heat affect the color?
8. Does the group affect the similar effects of the flame?
9. Does the amount of the element effect the flame?
10. What happens to the metal after you turn off the flame?
11. Does melting have an effect?
Group 2’s Questions
1. Why are the flames different colors?
2. Why is one flame smaller than the other?
3. What temperature is the flame?
4. Does one element react quicker?
5. What element reacts the slowest?
6. What’s the byproduct of these flames?
7. What tools are being used?
8. Which element burns the longest?
9. What affects the flame’s colors?
10. What affects the flame’s height?
11. Does the flame or the temperature affect the color of the flame?
- Why are the flames different colors?
- Why is one flame smaller than the other?
- Does one element react the quickest?
Group 3’s Questions
1. Why different colors? Different properties?
2. Why is the blue flame shorter?
3. What is each temperature?
4. Are some metals more flammable?
5. Why are some one color and some multicolored?
6. Why different sizes?
7. Do they have different melting points?
8. Why is strontium the brightest?
9. Why is calcium’s flame more transparent?
10. Do they release different energy?
11. Why first two groups? Alkali and alkaline earth metals?
12. Is the different in color due to temperature?
13. Why are some metals more flammable?
- Why are they different colors?
- Do they burn at different temperatures?
- Why is strontium the brightest?
Group 4’s Questions
1. Is it a combustion reaction?
2. What kind of reaction is this?
3. How do the number of electrons affect the color?
4. What’s the difference in elements?
5. Why is the blue flame smaller?
6. Why is the second flame the biggest?
7. What is being burnt?
8. What do the colors have to do with the element/flame?
9. Why is Li and Sr similar colors?
10. Why is NA and Ca similar colors?
11. What’s being put on the flame?
12. What is the product of this combustion?
Professor Narayanan shared that, “each group asked some variation of the key question that I hoped they would ask, so I was extremely happy. Students also posed some interesting questions I did not anticipate. So, I did clarify some of those questions before addressing the key question, “Why do these metals emit different colored light?”
The class discussed properties of light and related their thinking with accessible points of reference including UV-light and skin cancer, radio stations, and heat treatments. Most importantly, Professor Narayanan effectively engaged students by creating the opportunity for students to ask their own questions related to the upcoming chapter. Rather than lecture at students following an exam, Professor Narayanan shifted the onus of learning from professor to student, and students’ curiosity was now aflame with salient questions on the learning to come.